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William Byrd (1539/40-1623)

Sacred Works

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, Fifth Avenue, New York, Jeremy Filsell (conductor)
2CDs Download only
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: Various dates
Various recording venues
Produced by Various producers
Engineered by Various engineers
Release date: December 2023
Total duration: 143 minutes 40 seconds

Cover artwork: Interior detail from Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York.

This fine set offers an opportunity to experience the rich liturgy of Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue, a showcase for the music of William Byrd, and the welcome unearthing of a pioneering recording of The Great Service from 1981 and not previously available other than on LP.

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William Byrd‘s unparalleled legacy of sacred and secular music, written for both public and private consumption, was one in which a sophisticated musical mind seamlessly blended contrapuntal prowess and a specifically expressive intent. In the 400th anniversary year of his death (2023), it seems apposite that this recording should renew our acquaintance with some of his finest sacred music—that which exemplifies the oscillation between the rituals and traditions of Latinate Catholicism, and the requirements of a mid-16th-century reformed liturgy. Byrd’s life itself personified the contemporaneous religious tensions and conflict which characterized 16th-century England, yet his lifelong commitment to Catholicism itself—whilst paying dues to a Protestant monarch—led to the spiritual-musical paradox which inspired his greatest music.

Whilst we know that Byrd was born in London, the year of his birth remains uncertain. In his will (15th November 1622), he describes himself as ‘in the 80th year of age’, yet a 1598 document in his hand states that he was ‘58 yeares or ther abouts’, suggesting a possible birthdate of 1539 or 1540. While his early musical life is shrouded in mystery, Byrd’s two brothers are documented as having been choristers at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is conceivable that Byrd was a chorister there too. His first recorded professional appointment was as Organist and Master of Choristers at Lincoln Cathedral in 1563 and it was a tenure not without its cloistered drama. On 19th November 1569, the Dean and Chapter suspended Byrd’s salary, citing ‘certain matters alleged against him’. A new-found enthusiasm for Puritan ways, and pared-down music and liturgy, was strong at Lincoln, and it is not inconceivable that the provision of elaborate choral polyphony, or florid organ playing by the cathedral organist was the catalyst for dispute. Despite such raps-on-the-knuckles, Byrd appeared to continue to set the Latin liturgical texts at Lincoln with which he had been familiar, yet alongside music written in a purer, more conformist syllabic style. Perhaps the latter came to appease his Protestant clergy, at least until 1572. During the 1560s, as the Elizabethan religious settlement took effect, Byrd had provided a number of uncomplicated, yet effective, settings for the new Anglican liturgies of Matins, Communion and Evensong.

In 1572, Byrd became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal following the death of Robert Parsons (whose drowning in the River Trent at Newark on 25th January that year occurred in mysterious circumstances), and from the time of his appointment, Byrd was also named ‘organist’. Shortly after his appointment, Byrd, along with his mentor Thomas Tallis, was awarded an exclusive licence by Queen Elizabeth I to publish music. The collection Cantiones quae ab argumento sacrae vocantur (1575), of 34 Latin motets (17 each by Tallis and Byrd), dedicated to the monarch, marked this remarkable privilege. Elizabeth herself was no great enthusiast for the more extreme and then-burgeoning forms of Puritanism, and she remained partial to the elements of religious ritual and ceremony for which Byrd and Tallis’s motets were apt. Moreover, she was a music lover who enjoyed artistic and intellectual pursuits, and plainly appreciated the contributions of those whose lives were devoted to artistic endeavour. She appeared to respect the well-read, yet strongly-opinionated Byrd, and perhaps overlooked any suspicion of his true religious allegiance (famously she had stated that she had never wished for a ‘window onto men’s souls’). Did the granting of the patent attesting to the turning of a regal blind eye?

Despite monarchical favouritism, and the issuance of Pope Pius V’s papal bull Regnans in Excelsis (1570), absolving Elizabeth’s subjects from allegiance to her (effectively making her persona-non-grata in the eyes of the Catholic Church), Byrd remained drawn to Catholicism, yet the old religion became increasingly outlawed, if not treasonable in the eyes of more zealous reforming Tudor authorities. Byrd was often found in the company of prominent Catholic leaders and writers, and his membership of the Chapel Royal was briefly suspended in the 1580s. Indeed restrictions were placed on his travel at this time due to suspected Catholic sympathies.

Catholic persuasions seem expressed in many motets written between 1575 and 1591, and Joseph Kerman (The Masses and Motets of William Byrd, 1981) argues that in those which emphasize ideas of persecution and martyrdom (of a chosen people), Byrd reinterprets liturgical texts in a contemporaneous context, expressing lament on behalf of a victimized community (Vigilate, nescitis enim, the warning of spies, or Quis est homo, the dangers of false tongues). Thirty-seven of these motets were published in two later collections of Cantiones Sacrae (1589 and 1591), dedicated to Elizabethan Lords (the Earl of Worcester, and 1st Baron Lumley), perhaps in an attempt to re-establish the composer’s standing within Court circles.

In 1594 Byrd relinquished his Chapel Royal duties, and moved from the London to Stondon Massey in Essex, to be closer to his long-term patron John Petre, 1st Baron Petre (an involvement which had already drawn attention to his religious leanings over the previous decade). In Petre’s Ingatestone Hall, clandestine Catholic Mass celebrations had been known to attract the unwelcome attention of Crown informers, and perhaps Byrd sailed once again close to the wind in providing elaborate polyphony for the adornment of secret liturgical gatherings. Nonetheless, there survives a reference to a now-lost petition, written by Byrd to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, sometime between 1605 and 1612, suggesting that he, Byrd, had been allowed to practise the older religion under licence during Elizabeth’s reign. This notwithstanding, Byrd regularly appeared in local assizes and incurred periodic fines for suspected recusancy.

Under the aegis of the Petre family, Byrd wrote his three Latin Masses (in three, four, and five parts respectively), all magisterial examples of late English polyphony. They make retrospective reference to an earlier tradition of elaborate Mass setting (frowned-upon after 1558), and the Mass for Four Voices enjoys a strong motivic communality with John Taverner’s Mean Mass in its incessant rising step-wise and imitative figurations. It is not insignificant that Taverner’s Mass was particularly well-regarded in English cathedral repertoire during the earlier 1500s; had Byrd sung this regularly as a St. Paul’s chorister? He follows Taverner, and other Mass-setting precedents by assigning musical portions in alternatim, and by employing common head motifs at the inception of movements. Byrd’s three Mass cycles include full Kyrie settings, rare for Masses in earlier English Catholic use (troped Kyries were more common).

Byrd’s motet writing of the later 1590s was consolidated in two volumes of Gradualia, 1605 and 1607, dedicated to Sir John Petre. The 109 motets here represent music for the full (Catholic) liturgical year, and perhaps reflect the recusant hope for a calmer existence under the new Stuart King James I (whose mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been Catholic). However, a renewal of anti-Catholic persecution in England followed the failure of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, and a contemporary literary account refers to the arrest of a young Frenchman named Charles de Ligny, who on being apprehended and searched, was found to be carrying a copy of Byrd’s 1605 Gradualia. When Byrd died in 1623, a native tradition of Latin music perhaps expired with him. While consort and instrumental music developed avidly within a new generation of musicians at the Jacobean and Carolinian courts, the English Civil War, and a change of taste hastened by the Stuart Restoration, curtailed the use of Byrd’s ‘older’ style music along with that of other fine Tudor composers too.

We mark the quadricentenary of Byrd’s death in 2023 with this anthological recreation of the Catholic Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi (Dies Sanctissimi Corporis et Sanguinis Domini Iesu Christi; the Day of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ). Such a celebration of the Presence of the Body and Blood in the elements of the Eucharist feast was traditionally made two months after the ‘institution’ of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, and it was one of the great feasts of the pre-Reformation English Catholic Church. Whilst it became a focus for the Protestant destruction of the devotional world of mediaeval laity, Byrd was immersed in the earlier spiritual milieu it represented. The elaborate ceremonial in Sarum-style ritual had remained in religious currency into the late Henrician period, and was a rite identified with an admirably systematic and disciplined way of ordering liturgy, sacraments, readings, elaborate music, often accompanied by sumptuous ceremonial with a greater numbers of deacons, acolytes, thurifers, vested clergy, and processions (the Pange lingua and Sacris solemniis act as processional sequences here). After the reforming zeal of Edwardian years, the Catholic spiritual life which such liturgy embodied was restored briefly under Mary Tudor, yet Byrd had to find a way of thriving musical under the via media of Elizabeth during his mature years. His late music for this most Catholic of feasts perhaps exemplifies his success.

The Corpus Christi motets here are taken from the two Gradualia (Proprium Missae) collections of 1605 & 1607, and the sequence of the Mass (in which the mid-point and lengthy processional plainchant sequence Lauda Sion is omitted here) is that with which Byrd would undoubtedly have been familiar. Striking is the manner in which many of the motets, often with florid Alleluia strains and madrigalian-style, exuberant counterpoints, are linked both by shared spiritual intent and musical motif. There are motets here formed in the traditional Antiphon – Psalm verse – Gloria – Antiphon sequence, while others adopt a hymn format interpolating plainchant and polyphonic verse. The final motet, the 6-part setting of O salutaris hostia (lying outside the Gradualia collection—Byrd originally having provided a more conservative 4-part setting) is a through-composed conception, representing music of bold harmonic and canonic invention, peppered with the cross-relations born of canon between soprano, alto and tenor which so often marked Byrd’s remarkable music.

Included here is a recording (released on LP only in 1981) of the Saint Thomas Choir from the years of Gerre Hancock’s leadership. It allows us to hear Byrd’s complete Great Service, the flip side of Byrd’s Latinate expression. Despite the Great Service being music in the vernacular, written for the reformed Anglican liturgy embodying Thomas Cranmer’s 1550s exhortations for textual intelligibility (‘for every syllable, a note’), Byrd sets his canticles with compelling musical complexity. They were never published in his lifetime, and a specific date for their composition has yet to be substantiated. Their survival is due solely to the Elizabethan copyist John Baldwin who included them in a part book collection dated 1606. Given their contrapuntal complexity, and the part-writing skill they represent, it is doubtful that they date from Byrd’s Lincoln years: later years at the Chapel Royal seem more likely. In them Byrd pits skilfully the various ensembles of Decani and Cantoris in antiphony, in a manner inherited from the vernacular music of John Sheppard, Robert Parsons and William Mundy (‘in medio chori’).

Jeremy Filsell © 2023

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